Yesterday Amanda Marcotte published an article at Salon titled Just like a Bernie Bro, Sanders bullies Clinton: Brooklyn debate confirms Sanders campaign is sticking by sexist “ambition witch” stereotype. As the title suggests, the article is something of a primal scream of outrage at the way the Vermont Senator’s disrespect for Secretary Clinton in their recent debate in Brooklyn just dripped with sexism, although somehow Marcotte was unable to provide a persuasive example.
One example she gave of something the Senator actually said was,
“Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and intelligence to be president? Of course she does,” Sanders replied when asked about it. “But I do question her judgment.”
It wasn’t clear to me why that was sexist, but someone explained in the comments:
What this article is talking about is less about Hillary Clinton and more about historical attitudes and the use of certain phrases to disqualify women from the political sphere. Specifically, the concern and the underscoring of whether or not a candidate has the temperament and judgement. The argument was deployed against women during the suffrage movement…women do not have the temperament or judgement to vote. It is a phrase that has been employed against women running for governorships, the House, and the Senate.
To which I responded,
OK, so we can’t use the “j” word in regard to Secretary Clinton, because the “j” word is sexist. But what if her j… I mean, her, um, you know, that thing where you make decisions about stuff that has consequences … what if she’s really bad at that thing? I mean Libya, come on. And Honduras. And the Iraq vote, of course. I could go on. But we’re not allowed to say anything about this if we use the “j” word. So how about … perspicacity? There’s a good word. Her record tells us that Clinton falls really short in the perspicacity department. Can we say that?
I didn’t get an answer. Oh, well.
What Marcotte wrote in this article turns the ideals of second-wave feminism on their head. Back then we knew that we could not demand equal opportunity and gentler treatment at the same time. Sanders is not criticizing Clinton for her gender, but for her record. Marcotte seems to be saying that because Clinton is a woman, aggressive challenges of her record are out of bounds. Um, no.
But we’ve been through this before. I give you Michelle Goldberg, New Republic, June 25, 2008, 3 A.M. for Feminism.
Hillary Clinton has lost the nomination, but some of her most ardent female backers seem unwilling to accept it. A strange narrative has developed, abetted by Clinton and some of the mainstream feminist organizations. In it, the will of the voters was thwarted by chauvinistic party leaders in concert with a servile media, and Obama’s victory represents a repeat of George W. Bush’s in 2000. It’s a story in which Obama becomes every arrogant young man who has ever edged out a more deserving middle-aged woman, and Clinton, hanging on until the bitter end, is not a spoiler but a feminist martyr.
This conviction, that sexism cost Clinton the nomination, is likely to be one of the more toxic legacies of this primary season. It is leaving her supporters feeling not just disappointed but victimized, many convinced that Obama’s win is illegitimate. Taylor Marsh, a blogger and radio host whose website has become a hub for Clinton fans, says she gets hundreds of e-mails from angry Democrats pledging not to vote for Obama. She’s started running posts from such readers under the headline DEMOCRATIC STORM WARNINGS. “I’m not saying that this is a huge voting bloc,” she says. “I’m just saying that there is a huge amount of talk and I’m convinced it’s a reality that needs to be addressed.”
Goldberg reviewed the 2008 and noted that the notion that Clinton was losing because of sexism became more and more entrenched.
By the spring, the Clinton campaign and the cause of women’s rights were joined in the minds of many. Second-wave activists chided Obama-supporting women for not getting on board and began interpreting any attack on Clinton as a slight against their gender. The seating of delegates from Michigan and Florida started to seem like a feminist cause célèbre.
The movement coalesced in mid-May, when members of Clinton’s finance committee, including Susie Tompkins Buell, sometimes described as one of Clinton’s closest friends, and Allida Black, editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at George Washington University, formed WomenCount PAC. The group ran full-page advertisements in The New York Times, USA Today, and other newspapers addressing the country on behalf of “the women of this nation.” The ads proclaimed, rather grandly, “Hillary’s voice is OUR voice, and she’s speaking for all us.” Their story was featured on the “Today” show, “Good Morning America,” CNN, and Fox, and they joined other volunteers in organizing the rally at the DNC.
Meanwhile, Clinton, who’d previously avoided presenting herself as the woman’s candidate, brought gender to the forefront of her campaign as never before. On May 19, in a Washington Post interview, she spoke out for the first time about the sexism she’s faced throughout the race, calling it “deeply offensive to millions of women.” The press, she suggested, had failed to decry “incredible vitriol that has been engendered by the comments by people who are nothing but misogynists.” She began injecting feminist and civil rights language into her arguments for seating the Michigan and Florida delegates. Piously invoking Seneca Falls and Selma in a May 21 speech, she pledged to “carry on this legacy and ensure that in our nominating process every voice is heard and every single vote is counted.”
More and more, she was tying her campaign to the grand narrative of women’s emancipation. “I am in this race for all the women in their nineties who’ve told me they were born before women could vote, and they want to live to see a woman in the White House,” she wrote in a letter to superdelegates on May 28. “For all the women who are energized for the first time, and voting for the first time. For the little girls–and little boys–whose parents lift them onto their shoulders at our rallies, and whisper in their ears, ‘See, you can be anything you want to be.’ ”
Mainstream feminist organizations joined calls to seat the two states, with leaders of NOW and the Feminist Majority Foundation participating in the rally at the DNC. Some have suggested that the DNC’s reluctance was in itself a sign of covert sexism. “There’s a strong feeling that this would have been handled differently if Hillary Clinton hadn’t won [those] states,” says Kim Gandy, president of NOW.
Except Clinton really didn’t win the Florida and Michigan delegates. If you don’t remember that sorry episode, click here, then come back.
Of course, Clinton has encountered straight-up misogyny–lots of it. At the same time, anger at obvious instances of sexism has expanded to encompass every setback she’s faced, every jab thrown her way–the cut and thrust of any normal campaign. Several of her feminist defenders, for example, interpreted calls for Clinton to drop out, lest she cause a party rift, as expressions of condescending gender bias. “The first woman ever to win a presidential primary is supposed to stop competing, to curtsy and exit stage right,” Ellen Malcolm, founder and president of Emily’s List, wrote in The Washington Post on May 10. But that wasn’t anti-woman or even anti-Clinton; it was just Democratic politics. Similar worries were aired about Edward Kennedy in 1980–a Christian Science Monitor story claimed his “to-the-bitter-end candidacy already may be irreparably splitting the Democratic Party”–and about Jerry Brown in 1992, once Bill Clinton came near a mathematical lock on the nomination.
We’ve reached that stage now, even though it’s earlier in the campaign and even though Clinton is still favored to win. Every criticism of her is interpreted as sexism.
But let us go back to 2008. Obama wins the Dem nomination; John McCain wins the GOP nomination. And he picks for his veep — Sarah Palin. And it wasn’t long before every criticism of Palin was being called sexist by the Right. And given the example of Clinton, I don’t really blame them. It’s hard to tell what’s sexist and what isn’t with those two. I wrote in August 2008,
There’s a lot of talk about what we can and cannot say about Sarah Palin. There are some who seem to think any criticism at all of Palin amounts to sexism, an attitude that strikes me as sexist. It says that women can’t be taken seriously in the political world and treated the same way men are treated. It’s like the high school coach who puts girls on the boy’s varsity team not because he thinks they are good players, but because he thinks the opposing team will hesitate to rough them up. (Which, come to think of it, might explain McCain’s choice of Palin.) …
… There’s a difference between criticizing people professionally and criticizing them personally. Criticizing Palin’s stands on issues, yes. Discussing her record as a mayor and a governor, yes. Pointing out her lack of experience, yes. Ridicule of her appearance, family or personal lifestyle choices, no. I hope we’re clear.
It’s unfortunately the case that a lot of numbskulls can’t express themselves without dragging in ridicule of appearance, etc., and I see that all over social media. On all sides. No group can claim the moral high ground in this.
I also wrote in 2008,
I said a few weeks ago that if second-wave feminism weren’t already dead, Hillary Clinton’s campaign would have killed it. And may I say it was exactly this sort of self-absorbed whining that strangled feminism lo those many years ago.
Yes, Hillary Clinton got hit by a lot of really ugly sexism, but it wasn’t why she lost the nomination. If anything, the sympathy vote was her biggest asset. And it would be really great if people could just address the sexism issue without wrapping themselves in the gloriously self-indulgent mantle of victimhood. I could also do without the self-pity, the score-settling, and the denial of Clinton’s own bad behavior during the primaries. Thanks much.
I also frequently expressed amazement that these self-absorbed feminists were so completely oblivious to the treatment Barack Obama was receiving as the first potentially viable black presidential candidate.
Now, back to 2016. The social media nasty swarm has been all over itself ridiculing Sanders’s speaking at the Vatican. Jeffrey Feldman wrote,
So, there’s that. I can’t say I picked up on that, but I’m often oblivious to things. Unfortunately I don’t think it would help Bernie to wallow in victimhood as Clinton and her followers are doing.
Of course, Clinton didn’t lose in 2008 because of sexism; she lost because she was a less compelling candidate than Barack Obama. I wrote in June 2008,
As a generic choice I don’t much care whether the First President Who Is Not a White Man turns out to be a black man or a white woman, or for that matter a woman of color were one running this year. When I look at senators Clinton and Obama, my questions are which one of these two gets it? Which one sees the possibility of creating a new political culture friendly to progressivism? Which one is more likely to walk through that door?
And the answer I come up with is Obama. I cannot say whether he will succeed. He is human and imperfect, not political Jesus. But his words and background and the way he has run his campaign tell me he sees the opportunity that I see and will, at least, try.
However, I don’t believe Senator Clinton sees the opportunity. My belief is based in part on her performance in the Senate, which on the whole has been disappointing, and on the way she has run her campaign, which has been the same old “finesse (but don’t challenge) the Right and divide the Left” politics. All her formidable political skills mean nothing if she doesn’t see that open door.
Yes, electing Hillary Clinton would make a grand statement for feminism. But then we’d sweep up the popped balloons and confetti and go back to Old Politics Business as Usual. And nothing substantive would change. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I see it.
That’s still how I see it. And I think that’s how a lot of other people saw it, and that’s why she lost. Gender had nothing to do with it.
And this year? Clinton probably will win it this time. But it’s interesting that Taylor Marsh, who for a time in 2008 was seeing anti-Clinton sexism in every shadow, this year is calling Clinton “the George H.W. Bush of 2016.”